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How to survive as investment banking gets more boring

Bored banker

If you’re a big-swinging deal-maker with an over-inflated sense of your own self-importance, you’d be advised to keep it under your hat. In an era of banks preaching conservatism, a new trait will now serve you well in your career – being boring.

The swashbuckling banking CEOs are being replaced with dull ex-retail bankers, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out this week. Barclays’ Bob Diamond has morphed into a one-man private equity company, replaced with the softly-spoken jargon-loving figure of Anthony Jenkins. Even pure-play investment banks are changing – James Gorman, the ex-McKinsey consultant, is reinvigorating Morgan Stanley when ex-bond trader John Mack failed.

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Can you survive the new investment banking landscape?

Surviving in a bank that embraces boring involves more than just being able to swallow corporate guff speak and keep a smile on your face. If you want to thrive in your current role, you need to adapt, and if you’re moving, banks want to see evidence of a more socially responsible banker.

1. Big up socially responsible hobbies

The new era of CEOs don’t exactly spice up their lives with exciting hobbies. With the exception of Lloyds CEO António Horta-Osório, who enjoys a spot of shark-cage diving as well as tennis and chess, most keep it simple. Antony Jenkins enjoys marathon running and skiing, RBS’s Ross McEwen likes water-skiing and cycling, while Deutsche Bank’s Jürgen Fitschen enjoys jogging. This relatively dull hobby list is tempered by co-CEO Anshu Jain’s love of tigers.

Traders are no longer advised to be adrenaline junkies in their spare time – instead, show that you care. “If you have an official position outside of work – school governor or scout leader – this demonstrates your connection to the community. We’ve even had people highlighting that they’re a regular church-goer. This is adds more value than skiing or cooking,” said Jeremy I’Anson, a careers coach who works with investment bankers.

“I’ve worked with corporate finance professionals who do angel investing for local businesses, which demonstrates both an interest in other investment opportunities and a sense of social responsibility,” added Simon Broomer, managing director of career coaches CareerBalance.

2. Break down barriers

It’s difficult to for investment bankers to get their head around working for a boss with a retail banking background, particularly at places like Barclays where the investment bank accounts for around 60% of the group’s profits. However, increasingly banks are trying to engage the two sides of the business, said Professor Binna Kandola, senior partner at business psychologists Pearn Kandola.

“The retail bankers think that the investment bankers are a bunch of gamblers, while the investment bankers think retail bankers are process-driven suits,” he said. “It’s only by talking about this that the stereotypes are broken down – and it’s done in a good-natured way.”

3. Embrace the brand

The real message coming out of the banks with their new image is not necessarily “we’re boring”, but “we’re not reckless”, and this is something investment bankers ought to be thankful for, believes Jim Prior, CEO of branding agency The Partners, which works with firms in the financial sector.

“The rebranding is not just about a fancy Powerpoint presentation. Banks are telling their employees not to take unnecessary risk, not to stop innovating or making them money,” he said. “It may be difficult for some to accept – particularly those who have progressed in the era of aggressive CEOs – but banks want their employees to think more deeply about how they can help clients and beat markets.”

4. Seize new, sometimes boring, opportunities

Compliance and risk management are offering plentiful job opportunities, and this will only continue as banks embrace the culture change, believes Andre Spicer, a professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School. Some traders have already gravitated towards risk management roles, where job security is greater, and more front office staff could do the same.

“There are certainly many careers being made in the City today by bankers who have seen new opportunities for themselves in roles they would have thought about as uninteresting only a few years ago,” he said.

5. Never mention money at interview

Money is still, of course, a prime motivator for most working in investment banking, even if the focus on increasing salaries over big bonuses means you’re no longer likely to retire before you hit 30. However, you’d be unwise to play hardball over salaries in interview, particularly as banks now have a choice of younger, cheaper staff to choose from.

“I had one client who was earning £500k and thought they were underpaid,” said Broomer. “I had to point out that banks are a lot more cautious about how much they pay, and that there a lot of people on the market right now who would work for half of that.”

6. Just tone it down

Never lose sight of the fact that, ultimately, investment banks still want go-getters who can bring in the deals and knock the competition out of the water. What they don’t want to see are aggressive egotists. “Banks are money-making machines, and they want to employ people who can do that for them,” said Broomer. “But, they also want team players with a keen sense of risk and reward – their biggest concern is that they’re going to hire a loose cannon they can’t control.”

7. Consider the consequences

Psychologically, people within organisations attempting to push through change ask three questions, said Kandola: What’s in it for me? How difficult will it be? What will happen if I don’t change to suit the new environment?

“It’s the first and third questions that are the most important,” he said. “If you don’t change it will affect your long-term career progression, so there’s a lot in it for you by embracing the new environment. And, if carry on regardless, you’ll be called out by both managers and regulators. This means you won’t last long.”

8. Just move on

If you can’t cut it in large investment banks, simply look for alternatives, advises Spicer. “Many people who pride themselves on taking extreme risks in a culture which asks the opposite of them. This is surely an uncomfortable fit for many. The result could be some bankers leaving the mainstream banks for the less regulated ‘shadow banks’. Hopefully in more cases bankers feel they can finally be themselves at work.”

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